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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Switzerland Holds Vote on Membership of UN

GENEVA -- Swiss voters were sharply divided Sunday in balloting over a proposal for their country to join the United Nations after more than five decades on the fringes.

State-owned Swiss Radio said early returns following the close of the polls at noon were so close that it was impossible to make a projection.

Impassioned appeals from nationalists fueled opposition to the government-backed referendum to join 189 countries in the world body. Switzerland has long been a dues-paying member of some UN specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.

But it remains -- with the Vatican -- an observer state in the UN General Assembly.

Seventy-five percent of Swiss rejected UN membership in a similar referendum in 1986, backing opponents who said membership would let East-West polarization compromise Swiss neutrality.

But the government believes the political climate has changed since the height of the Cold War, and that it is time for the 7 million Swiss to play a full role in the world.

Opponents claim UN membership would force Switzerland to abandon its cherished sovereignty and submit to the political dictates of the five permanent members of the Security Council, such as the imposition of sanctions on countries like Iraq. Recent opinion polls have predicted about 56 percent support for membership.

But, under the Swiss constitution, membership needs a double approval -- not only a majority of those voting nationwide, but also a majority in at least 12 of the country's 23 cantons, or states. The first four cantons to report -- all of them smaller -- were all against UN membership. The government says membership should cost $42 million a year, compared with the $1.8 billion a year economic windfall from the presence of UN European headquarters in Geneva.

Switzerland already provides logistical help to peacekeeping operations and invariably follows UN sanctions.

The government -- backed by Swiss industry, banks and interest groups -- fears another rejection will make Switzerland an international outcast with a selfish and uncaring reputation.

Leading the opposition is Christoph Blocher -- a billionaire industrialist who says Switzerland is successful and wealthy precisely because it is different.

"We have our system of direct democracy, neutrality and federalism. We would lose that if we became a member of the United Nations," Blocher said in a recent debate.